The Jacksonian tradition lives — will the GOP?
Let us posit for a moment that a certain class of doomsday scribes is correct: if Donald Trump wins the nomination, the Republican Party is finished. Does this mean the end of civilization? Or the end of the American Century, which for all practical purposes is the same thing?
Consider the more limited doom, the end of the GOP. The reports of the Grand Old Party’s imminent demise may be premature; after all, it has evolved considerably since the mid-19th century. Republicanism began as a frontier-party, an anti-slavery (though not abolitionist) party, on the side of workingmen, entrepreneurs, pioneers, tillers of the soil, log-cabin dwellers, Indian-fighters. The early Republicans were, as we would say today, more than not on the “Jacksonian” wing of American political sociology.
Andrew Jackson has been much abused, maligned, disparaged of late, but the treatment dishonors his detractors and honors him. To be attacked and airbrushed in the manner of totalitarian political gangsters is an honor (though it happened to bad guys too, like Leon Trotsky and many other “Old Bolsheviks”). Fortunately, public servants, notably Virginia’s former senator James Webb, laid the groundwork in print for a restoration, which will come eventually, because what goes around comes around, except when it keeps going.
The Grand Old Party will keep going. The Democrats too have evolved a great deal since those days of yore. They were at one time and in one place, a party of race-hatred and segregation. They were for a time, say from Roosevelt and Truman to Kennedy and Johnson, a party of freedom, with some hues of social welfare bordering on European social-democratic models, but restrained in this regard by its commitment to American destiny, to what used to be called the American exception, or in popular culture the American way of life.
At the rate things have gone lately, I, myself, though this is not about me, still think my suggestion early in this presidential cycle was sound: our best bet was a draft-Webb movement, on a platform of peace-through-strength in foreign policy and federal disengagement in domestic policy.
I have noticed that some, across the putative ideological spectrum, have followed this suggestion, ranging from conservatives such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol toPolitico’s co-founder Jan VandeHei, who might be described as rather more on the liberal side.
Neither Mr. Kristol nor Mr. VandeHei believes the Republicans are up to drafting their way out of the questionable contribution to democratic governance represented by the various primary systems the state parties use. They separately suggest instead a concept not unlike mine (this is not about me but I am trying to be fair and accurate), namely the quick-launch of a third party. Mr. Kristol has urged the conservative wing of the Republican Party to coalesce around a man of principle, and fight and fight again, as Hugh Gaitskell put it once, for the party’s soul.
Mr. VandeHei expressed the idea in politically pragmatic terms, arguing (in the Wall Street Journal) that a third party could win if it found a way to put up a strong ticket, which he thought should be headed by a military man, seeing as how we are at war. Such a ticket could express the common sense and the frustration that Donald Trump has mobilized, without the maddening inconsistencies, the contradictions, the brazen opportunism, that the New Yorker’s detractors find indigestible.
That is a very sensible argument, in my opinion (this is not about me, but I must show my bias or I will be accused of being really biased), and indeed Mr. Kristol lately had a conversation, reported in the news service Breitbart, with a highly regarded military officer, Marine general James Mattis, who reportedly politely declined the suggestion he run.
There is no reason to rule out a development reflecting the Kristol-VandeHei gambit. Modest to a fault, I do not call it the Kristol-VandeHei-Kaplan gambit; also I do not call it the Kristol-VandeHei-Kaplan-Kondracke gambit, though Morton Kondracke, a man in the aforementioned Truman-Johnson vein of American liberalism, urged, several months ago, New York ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg to either run or fund a third party.
Mayor Bloomberg has responded by saying that the Trump threat is such that he does not want to draw away any votes from a Democrat who can beat him; in effect he endorsed Mrs. Hillary Clinton. Though a former New York senator (and U.S. secretary of state), and though adored by many women of a certain type and age, Mrs. Clinton is widely loathed and Mr. Bloomberg’s point is well taken. All must rally to whoever is not Trump, if the goal is to stop him at all costs.
Is this a laudable goal? Is it in the interest of the party, of the country? Many believe so. The Constitution, they say, is threatened more by a Trump presidency than a second Clinton one. This may be so. Or it may not be so. The reality is that our public affairs have reached such a degree of cynicism that it is almost not a cause for embarrassment and shame that we should find ourselves considering which of the two leading candidates is the more prone to lawlessness.
There is one difference; some will not find it reassuring. Mr. Trump has expressed a certain contempt for the law but he can say that this is merely campaign bluster, in keeping with the highly original strategy of rhetorical excess he has adopted. We have not yet seen him use tactics of questionable constitutionality to muzzle the press, to punish opponents, to obtain military intelligence.
Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, has been tested in public life and by broad consensus found not only wanting but seriously deficient in honesty, character, and strategic shrewdness. The deficits have been personal, and these could be shrugged off, in a cynical age, as old fashioned graft, not that it would be to anyone’s credit to think so. But they have also been political, and that is of course far more serious. She is not alone responsible, but she has to take a big share of the blame for the death and destruction and disaster that have befallen the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel, South Asia, with repercussions in Europe and our own southern border. This is a pretty bad record in public life. Also, she has shown contempt for many Americans, including many women.
The Trump campaign has been marked by provocation; it is as if by his choice of language, his way of presenting issues, the candidate were deliberately seeking to tell the voters, I agree with you, they’re all a bunch of no-good’s, so let’s show ‘em. At the same time, he has stuck resolutely to one positive theme: America must remain the top country and other countries better know it. Mrs. Clinton has actively taken part in an administration that has worked against this premise.
Donald Trump’s motif is a long-standing theme of Republican politics. Many conservatives reproach Donald Trump for his banality as much as for his uncouthness. Conservative commentators reacted to his foreign policy address last week with a kind of churlishness, faulting him for lack of detail more than for the general approach to the world that he took, with which after all they must admit they agree. The only area where he appears to be breaking with tradition is international trade.
Significantly, however, free trade is perhaps the one issue where there has been a more-than-average degree of bipartisan consensus since World War II. Mr. Trump’s verbal volatility is such that we do not know just what he has in mind in terms of trade policy; but there is nothing wrong with proposing trade and industrial policies that might have features that, though outside the consensus in these realms, might be in the national interest.
It cannot be off limits to discuss off-consensus ideas. This, in fact, is where Trump really seems to have hit a nerve. He is off-consensus. A lot of people who make their living in politics are astonished that someone not in the profession should be the one getting big cheers for doing this, even when, perhaps especially when, they are on record as opposed to the kind of creeping administrative-state tyranny at home and appeasement abroad that his voters, rightly or mistakenly, believe he can resist and roll back.
One of the rare editorial commentators who has noticed this, and more pertinently who has noticed that this could be the key to the Trump appeal, is the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. Describing a dismal campaign and a sad time for the country, she nonetheless recognizes that voters are saying, at least here is someone who is for us. This is, by the way, a point a keen observer of the American scene, Tom Wolfe, has made regarding the survival of old Southern political style, “championism,” rallying to the fellow who comes out and fights for his kith and kin, his neighbors. Mr. Wolfe told TAS’s George Neumayr a few months ago that Trump voters see in their man someone unafraid to defy polite euphemisms and say what he — and they — think.
Notwithstanding he is neither a Southerner nor Scotch-Irish, there is a side of Trump that is squarely in this Jacksonian tradition. The Democrats have rejected it. Should the GOP march with this standard? Can Trump be trusted to hold it up? Or is the party better off holding fast to its conservative principles, as George Will and others recommend, and, if it cannot keep him from getting the nomination, wait for another chance to save the Union?
Perhaps; but, too, it might be well to have a moratorium on the fierce polemics and get right down to the business of saving the union, the Union, yes, from all that want to rend it and run it down.